24 December 2012

Sermon on the genealogy of Christ

            Have you ever thought about the fact that the people of the Middle Ages didn’t think of themselves as living in the Middle Ages? No; as far as they were concerned, they were modern. All the world’s prior history was leading to their time.
            And so it is with us, too. We children of the 60s and 70s had a saying, “Never trust anyone over 30.” We were the center of history; our parents and grandparents were old folks. Then time played its cruelest joke on us. We got older than 30. We had kids, and now we have grandkids. We have become our grandparents. And we have discovered, just as every previous generation, that the world doesn’t revolve around us. Like the old hymn says, “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away/ They fly, forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.”
            Each generation thinks that it is the point of history. Time proves us wrong, so some move to the other extreme—the view that history has no point, no center. History is just “one thing after another”—in the words of Macbeth, it’s a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
            Today’s gospel sets things straight. History does have a center, a focus, a point. But it’s not us, here…it’s two thousand years ago and an ocean away. St. Matthew goes through the genealogy of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. And what a tale it tells!
            We hear of Abraham, the friend of God and father of the faithful; Isaac, the child of promise, the one who showed Abraham’s obedience; Jacob, the sneak, who got the blessing by deceit. It’s a story of sinners. Unlike most genealogies, it lists some women, too. But all of them have a question mark by their name: Rahab the harlot…Ruth the foreigner…Bathsheba the adulteress.
            We hear, too, of the high and low points of Jewish history. From God’s promise to Abraham till David the king, 14 generations go by. From that pinnacle to the exile into Babylon, another 14 generations. And from the Babylonian captivity till God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled, took another 14 generations. Promise… Kingship…Exile—all lead to the center, the point of it all—the birth of enfleshed God. For history is, you see, his story.
            And because it is his story, it is our story too. When God the Son became man in the womb of the Virgin, he took on our humanity, in all its fullness, apart from sin.  Isn’t that what today’s gospel is all about?
            God the Son’s becoming man is, for us, a comfort. We do not have a God untouched by our weakness. He knows what we’re going through. He knows hunger and thirst, he knows poverty and temptation. He even knows sin—not because he sinned, but because he took our sin on himself and conquered it for us.
            God the Son’s becoming man is also a challenge. There are many human beings, but only one humanity. When I say, “I am human,” “You are human,” “Christ is human,” the word “human” refers to one and the same thing. 
We have a habit of excluding some from the human community. When the head of the NRA spoke about the school shooting in Connecticut, he referred to “monsters among us.” Some of our leaders refer to the Iranians seeking nuclear power as “insane.” When we were broken into, some of us thought, “What kind of person would do that?”
But the reality is, there are not two or more humanities. All these people: the school shooter, our enemies on the world stage, and those who hurt us personally—all alike share the same humanity with us, and with incarnate God. So do the poor, the prideful, the weak and the wealthy.
The challenge for us, then, is to love them all alike—not making distinctions, not allowing for classes, not treating anyone different from another. For God the Son became man, and in his incarnation he embraces each and every one of us. Let us, therefore, embrace each other in love! History is his story, and his story is the story of abiding love, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

01 October 2012

Homily for Second Sunday of St. Luke

Today's texts teach one theme: the theme of theosis. In our Epistle we hear, “I will be a Father to you, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” And the Lord Jesus says, “Love your enemies...and you will become sons of the Most High.” 
What is theosis? Quite simply, that we become sons and daughters of God: that what he is by nature, we become by grace. Or, as St. Athanasius says, “God became man, so that we might become god.”
God, in Christ, became man.
He who was eternally begotten of a Father without mother,
      was begotten in time of a mother without father.
He whom the heavens cannot contain,
      was held within the womb of a woman.
He who nourishes all creation,
      was fed on milk.
He did not come because we were worthy,
      but because we were dead, in trespasses and sin,
      held by Satan in bondage to sin.
He did not come because we sought him, or wanted him;
      he came because he is good and loves mankind,
      because he saw his work falling into decay,
      and willed to raise us to life,
           to forgive our sins,
           and restore his image and likeness in us.
He won us for himself, by active, patient love,
      by taking our guilt and sin on himself,
      and by pouring out his holy, divine life into death.
He rose from the dead, trampling down death by death,
      and to those in the tombs bestowing life.
He ascended into heaven, that he might fill all things;
      he poured out the promise of the Spirit from the Father
           upon his waiting Church.
Now the Holy Spirit works in the Church, bringing us through the Son to the Father.
The Holy Spirit indwells us, and so we are God's holy Temple.
He births us in holy Baptism, he anoints us with holy Chrism, he makes the bread and wine to be Christ's own flesh and blood so that we might receive Christ,
     and with Christ, forgiveness; and with Christ, eternal life.
Let us not forget how great a price was paid for us, beloved;
     let us not forget to what end it was paid.
Christ did not suffer to make us happy, to give us our “best life now.”
He did not die to give us an excuse to wallow in sin and self.
He did not rise to give us this life, extended out forever.
He suffered to give meaning and purpose to our suffering;
He died so that we might die to sin;
He rose to give us his own divine, indestructible life.

It's through much suffering that we enter the Kingdom of God;
it's through dying to sin that we are free to serve others;
it's through sharing his own indestructible life that we truly know God.

This is an election season, beloved; in a little over a month we will choose who will govern our nation and state. But every day, and every moment, we hold a little election. Shall we let the idols around us, come to live in God's temple? May it never be!

Rather, if we are the Temple of God, and we are, then let us give ourselves over to worship. (That's what temples are for, after all.) Let us be constant in prayer, in Scripture, in giving thanks to God.

If we are the sons of God, and we are, then let us live as sons of God. Let us seek Christ in the least of his brothers and sisters: the poor, the sick, and the ones whom nobody loves. Let us love our enemies and do good; let us lend, expecting nothing in return. Let us learn to become merciful, even as our God is merciful: for that, beloved, is the way of theosis...that is the way to the Kingdom, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

09 September 2012

Sermon on Sunday before Holy Cross (Jn 3.14f; Gal. 6)

            A priest once heard a woman sobbing in the stillness of a church. He wondered, “What could be the problem?” Did someone die? Were they ill? Had they lost their job? He went up to console her and asked, “What’s the trouble?”
Her answer stunned him. “Father, I call myself a Christian. But my life is going well. I have no suffering, no sorrows, and no problems worth talking about. I am worried that perhaps I have fallen from Christ.”
            How strange her remark sounds…but how right-on it is! The Christian life is marked by suffering. The Christian life is marked by the cross, and where there is no cross, there there is no Christ. St. Paul told the Hebrews, “If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.”
            Now sometimes the cross comes to us unsought. The person whose marriage falls apart despite their best efforts…the one who hears that horrid word ‘cancer’ from the doctor…the one who becomes isolated at school because he bears the name of Christ…nobody wants these things, no one desires them, but they come nonetheless.
            Joachim and Anna bore the cross of childlessness. When we read their story, and hear how uprightly they lived, and how cruelly they were taunted, it makes us weep. But it was through their suffering, and through their prayers, that God made them ready to become parents of the Theotokos. How else can we explain how willing they were to give her up to life in the Temple at just three years of age? Their suffering bore rich fruit.
            But what about us? What if we have no suffering in our life, to speak of? Well, in such times we can take up the cross of self-discipline. Prayer, fasting and alms are all means by which we say “no” to ourselves and “yes” to God and to others.
            There are those who like to say they follow “the theology of the cross,” and surely the cross is a wonderful theology to follow. But for St. Paul and for all the saints from then till now, the cross is not merely a clever phrase, or way of speaking. For all the saints, the cross is a daily experience of being united to Christ in his sufferings. St. Paul says, “God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of Christ, whereby I was crucified to the world, and the world was crucified to me.” And again, he tells us, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” Where there is no cross, there there is no Christ.
            But why? Why is the cross so necessary for the Christian life? If we are the children of God, then why must we suffer…why must we discipline ourselves?
            In the first place, the suffering of Christ was the means by which he gave his life for us; and if we are to receive that life, suffering is the means by which it enters us. In today’s gospel Jesus tells Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up, so that all who believe in him should have eternal life.”
            Think of a blood transfusion. The one who donates the blood, gives it through a wound opened in his body with a needle. But the one who receives it, must receive it through a wound opened in his body likewise with a needle. When we embrace suffering, not with complaining but with repentance and faith, we are joined to the one who joined himself to us completely on the cross.
            And suffering accomplishes its work in another way. Soren Kierkegaard tells the story of a swan who flew high above a barnyard. He worked hard to get his food; but the ducks in the barnyard were fed by the farmer. One day his curiosity got the best of him. He landed in the barnyard. To his surprise, the farmer didn’t try to catch him. Instead, he fed the swan.
            Day after day, the swan began to land in the barnyard for his food. He grew fatter and slower. Finally one day the farmer went to grab him…and he had become so fat he was unable to escape.
            Kierkegaard asks us, “What if someone had scared off the swan…had made his time in the barnyard unpleasant.? The swan would never have been caught by the farmer. That’s what the cross does in our life. It reminds us that this life, where so many glory in the wrong things, is fundamentally upside down. All the glory, all the pleasure, all the power of this world ends at the grave.
            But those who have been joined to Christ in his sufferings have something different to look forward to. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs-- heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
            So let us learn to embrace the suffering that comes our way in this life. Let us embrace the disciplines of prayer, and alms, and fasting. Wherever we see Christ suffer, there let us join him, whether it is the poor, the hungry, the sick—wherever he hides himself. For our cross, embraced in repentance and faith, joins us to Christ’s cross, the source of our life. And by the cross the Lord will teach us to look past these present passing pleasures, to the eternal joy at his right hand, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

13 August 2012

Sermon on the Sunday after Transfiguration, 2012

            Two things surprise me about today’s Gospel lesson. While the Lord Jesus was on the mountain with Peter, James and John, a man had brought his demon-possessed son to the other disciples and asked them to cast out the demon. Try as they might, they couldn’t do it. So when the Lord returned, the man came to him directly and asked him to do it. At once the demon left the boy. The disciples, all embarrassed, took Jesus aside privately and asked, “Why couldn’t we cast it out?”
            And that brings us to the first surprise. Jesus answers, “Because you have no faith.” Ouch! He doesn’t say, “Because you have small faith,” or “because you have weak faith.” No; he tells these men who had been living with him for two years or more, “You have no faith.” Zero. Zip. Nada. Talk about bringing someone down to the ground!
            Think of all the problems we face. Sometimes, as in our Gospel lesson, others bring us those problems. (As Tevye says, in Fiddler on the Roof, “Life obliges us with hardships…”) We wonder, “How can I help this person who’s come to me for aid?”
And sometimes we bring those problems on ourselves. We worry, we think, we try different strategies, all to no avail.
Meanwhile, we assume that we have faith, and that we just need to figure out that missing something—whatever it might be. But all to no avail. Our problems don’t so much get solved, as get exchanged for other ones.
What if all these other problems just distract us from the one problem that all of life’s about? What if we keep on attacking the symptoms, but never address the root cause?
What if, instead, we took the Lord’s diagnosis to heart? “Why, Lord, am I so ineffective? Why can’t I get things done for you?” “Because you have no faith.”
When I first became Orthodox, Deacon David Khorey told me about a priest he knew growing up. The priest used to say to people, on a regular basis, “Pray for my conversion.”
“Pray for my conversion.” Isn’t that what’s it’s all about, after all? The struggle of our lifetime isn’t with this or that problem others bring to us…or the problems we see in ourself. The struggle of our lifetime is simply this: that before we die, we come to faith in our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Didn’t he say, after all, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Didn’t his apostle say, “I do not consider that I have made it my own”—and by “it” he means “the righteousness from God that depends on faith”?
Why, after all, do we struggle with prayer, and reading the Scripture, and coming to Matins and Vespers? Why do we seek our own pleasure, and get into power struggles? Why do we grow so often dissatisfied? At root, it’s a faith-problem.
In the book, The Way of a Pilgrim, the pilgrim goes to a renowned monk for confession. The pilgrim lists every sin he can remember from his youth up. When the monk sees his list, he tells the pilgrim, “You have all these things, but you’ve forgotten the main sins.” “What do you mean?” the pilgrim asks, and the monk gives him his own list. Four items are listed, and one of them is “I have no religious belief.”
But just that fact brings us to the second surprise of the text. And to me it’s even more amazing than the first. Jesus doesn’t forsake these men. St. Matthew continues, “As they were traveling together through Galilee…”
He knew that one would betray him. He knew that another would deny him. He knew that all of them alike would forsake him. But he didn’t forsake them. He stayed with them. He gave them all he was, and all he had.  As John says in his gospel, “…Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the uttermost.”
You see, unbelief doesn’t get the last word with Christ. Neither does sin. Neither does death. His love for us is the ground on which we build our faith. His holy death covers our sin—indeed, by death he trampled death, and rose again for us. Take a look at the icon of the Anastasis. The Lord Jesus stands triumphant over death and hades; all the locks of hades’ gates lie scattered and broken beneath him. And then, in his strong hands he pulls Adam and Eve from hades. Look carefully, and you will see that he is holding them by the wrist, not by the hand. There is synergy, of course—they have their hands extended. But the work of pulling them out is his work.
So let us stop swatting at symptoms, and look to the root. Let us accept the Lord’s judgment and see that our problem is with faith. Let us learn to say with Deacon David’s friend, “Pray for my conversion.” For he who died for you and rose for you, promises, “I will never fail you, I will never forsake you. I am with you always, even to the end of the age. In the world you will have trouble, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”

03 June 2012

A Strange Uniate argument

We had an interesting guest at the parish today--a Byzantine Catholic whose brother is Orthodox. Both were raised Protestant. When I expressed surprise to the one brother that he would have chosen to become Byzantine Catholic, he used what I consider to be an odd explanation.

Referring to JH Newman's The Development of Doctrine, and connecting it to John 6, he claimed first, that doctrine has continued to develop (in the Newman sort of way). He then claimed that the end of John 6 is normative for the whole history of the church, and that unless a body continues to develop its teachings and bring each new generation to a crisis-point--a point at which some or many of Christ's disciples leave or are tempted to leave--unless that happens, such a body cannot be the Church Christ founded.

To him, it is proof of Orthodoxy's error that it has held no council since 787. (Of course I pointed out the council of 879, which rejected the filioque; I could also have cited the Palamite councils of the 1340's, but no matter.) In any case, I found it odd for a Uniate to argue that the Orthodox Church presents no ongoing crisis-point at which some leave, given that the Uniate movement arose precisely as a departure from the Orthodox faith in favor of Rome.

But I've seen a similar defense for western discussions of, say, original sin and justification. "We in the West have had to deal with more problems than you in the East," this argument goes, "and so our theological language is more precise than yours." It seems to me to be a little like a Saab owner arguing that his car is superior to a Honda, because it has required more time in the shop.

The Church has had councils since 787, of course, as mentioned above. But ongoing theological crises scarcely seem to be a hallmark of truth. It is good when dysfunctional homes work through troubles to achieve some modicum of stability; but it is better when no such internal troubles arise.

Homily for Pentecost 2012

            Today is the feast of Pentecost. Today God’s promises are fulfilled, our hope is accomplished, and the Church is born. Today the curse of Babel is reversed. Long ago men sought to make a name for themselves by building a tower to reach heaven, and by divine judgment their tongues were scattered. But today the Holy Spirit is poured out in tongues of flame, and God unites men and women and children of every race and tribe and tongue, by giving them the name of the consubstantial Trinity, one in essence and undivided.
            Those of us who came from western Christian traditions knew the Sunday after Pentecost as the Sunday of the Holy Trinity. But in the Orthodox Church, we mark the day of Pentecost itself as the day of the Holy Trinity—and there is wisdom in this choice. For on this day, at last the Spirit is most clearly revealed as he comes to the Church in fiery tongues. Here is how St. Gregory the Theologian puts it:
“The Old Testament proclaimed the Father openly, and the Son more obscurely.  The New manifested the Son, and suggested the Deity of the Spirit.  Now the Spirit Himself dwells among us, and supplies us with a clearer demonstration of Himself.“
But why this ordering of revelation? St. Gregory continues, “For it was not safe, when the Godhead of the Father was not yet acknowledged, plainly to proclaim the Son; nor when that of the Son was not yet received to burden us further (if I may use so bold an expression) with the Holy Ghost; lest perhaps people might, like men loaded with food beyond their strength, and presenting eyes as yet too weak to bear it to the sun’s light, risk the loss even of that which was within the reach of their powers; but that by gradual additions, and, as David says, Goings up, and advances and progress from glory to glory, the Light of the Trinity might shine upon the more illuminated.”  Thus far Gregory.
So the order in which God shows himself is Father, Son and Spirit. But the order by which we come to know him, reverses the order. We come in the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father. The Spirit makes us to know the Son, for “no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit,” as St. Paul says, and Christ himself says, “when the Comforter comes, he will bear witness about me.”
By the grace of the Holy Spirit, we come to know the Son. In the 19th century, some liberal theologians wrote lives of Jesus. Finally, Albert Schweitzer wrote a history of those books. He remarks that the Jesus each of them portrayed looked a lot more like an idealized portrait of the theologian. And it happens again today, as people take Christ out of context to make him support their own agendas. At the end, we begin to wonder who Jesus is.
The Holy Spirit makes it clear. He brings us to know Jesus as the Son of the Father, Light from Light, true God from true God, one in essence but distinct in Person. He also makes us to know his own relation to the Son, for at the Baptism of Jesus he comes from the Father and rests on the Son. And so we believe, and so we confess, that the Spirit proceeds, not from the Father and the Son, but from the Father alone, and rests on the Son.
So in the Second Comforter, we come to know the First Comforter, the Word of God made flesh for us men and for our salvation. And through the First Comforter, we come to know the Father. On the night of Christ’s betrayal, Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Jesus responded, “Have I been so long with you, and still you do not know me? Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father…I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.”
Note carefully: Christ distinguishes his Person from the Person of the Father. He does not say, “I am the Father,” but “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.” But he shows their unity of essence by speaking of “Father” and “Son,” for all fathers are the same essence as the sons they beget. Horse fathers beget horse sons, human fathers beget human sons. Since, in this case, the Father is God, the Son must also be God.
Through the Son we know the Father. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son.” The cross of Christ is not that of an innocent child crushed by an angry, abusive father.  At Christ’s cross, rather, we see the complete, self-giving love of the Father. Such love!—that he gives us the one in whom dwells all the fullness of deity bodily—utterly and completely gives him, life into death, that through his death we might share the life of the Holy Trinity.
And now, let us never go further. Let us never seek to innovate, or be creative. Let us remain in the teaching we have received, the faith given once for all to the saints. Each week we say, just before the Creed, “Let us love one another, that with one accord we may confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided.”
To remain in the Orthodox faith is to remain in love—love for God who has revealed himself, and love for all those who faithfully handed down this truth to us. And the reverse is true. To depart from love—to act out the pride of Babel—is to depart from the Orthodox faith.
So on this day of Pentecost, let us, like them, remain together and in one accord. Let us love each other fervently, not only in word but in deed and truth. By this all men will know that we are Christ’s disciples; and by this we will come, in the Spirit and through the Son, to know the Father.

13 May 2012

Why would anyone in their right mind go to get water at high noon? Getting water, back then, was hard work. It wasn’t a job you’d want to do by yourself. And it certainly wasn’t something to do in the heat of the day. Yet there she was, day after day, in the heat of the day, coming to the well. But this day something was different. A man sat there—a Jew. He sat by the well, tired. Whether we recognize it or not, we put up little walls around ourselves. There’s the wall between the sexes, the wall between social classes, the wall between old and young. It requires extra effort for us to approach someone who’s different than we are. We have to climb these walls first. At the well that day, that tired Jewish traveler broke down all the walls—it was as if they didn’t even exist for him. First he talked to her. “Woman, give me a drink.” She was shocked, and pointed out the walls. “How can you, a Jewish man, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” Now that he had her attention, he shocked her. “If you had known God’s gift, and who asks you, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” She was confused. Living water? Who did he think he was? So she tried to put him into context. “Our father Jacob gave us this well to drink from; are you greater than him?” See how gently, yet powerfully he replies. He doesn’t compare himself directly to Jacob. He points out that Jacob’s water doesn’t really satisfy our thirst…but that his water, the living water, will become a spring inside us. (Talk about indoor plumbing!) So she commits herself to him. “Sir, give me this water, so that I might not thirst, or have to come here to draw.” Her heart is opening…the walls are down…all, that is, but one. “Go call your husband,” he tells her, “and come here.” “But I have no husband,” she answers. “You speak truly,” he says, “for you have had five husbands, and the man you have now is not your husband.” Now the last wall comes down. Now we understand why she came every day at noon, by herself. She was a woman scorned by all the others, an outcast, a misfit. He knew it all…but still he loved her. But she was also a woman with insight. She confessed him to be a prophet, and asked him the most burning Jewish/ Samaritan question: where is the right place to worship, in Samaria or Jerusalem? She wasn’t ready for his answer. “Soon,” he said, “neither here nor Jerusalem. For God is looking for those who worship him in spirit and in truth.” Who was this weary traveler? Clearly he was greater than Jacob. He even seemed greater than a prophet. So she brought up the Messiah. “When Messiah comes, he will explain everything to us,” she said. “I who speak to you am he,” Jesus replied. Now her life was truly turned upside down. She forgot all about getting water. She even left her water pot there at the well. She ran into the town and broke down their walls by saying, “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he be the Messiah?” We often hear this text preached as an evangelism text…and so it is. But this morning, I invite you to put yourself in the place of this woman, Photeini...to see how Christ deals with us. Her daily trip to the well represents the things we thirst for every day…our desires. In Jeremiah, the Lord says, “My people have committed two great evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and have hewed out for themselves broken cisterns, which hold no water.” The walls we build around ourselves, to protect ourselves, simply don’t exist for him. He knows us as we are. Yet still he loves us. He offers us the living water—his Holy Spirit—so that we may be refreshed and energized day after day to live for him. The mediaeval write Thomas de Celano meditated on todays text and wrote, in Latin, Quarens me sedisti lassus; Redemisti, crucem passus; Tantus labor non sit casus! Translated, it says, “Seeking me, you sat weary (by the well); you redeemed me, suffering on the cross; (O Lord,) don’t let such labor go for nothing! It won’t go for nothing, beloved, as we open ourselves to Christ like St. Photeini…when we receive from him this great gift he gives…the gift of living water. Thirsty? Come and drink!

06 May 2012

Homily on the Paralytic, 2012

Where were you thirty eight years ago? I was fresh out of high school, working at a drug store for a dollar an hour, thinking about heading off to college in the fall. Richard Nixon was the president. Gold was about $165 an ounce. The #1 song was “Locomotion,” done by Grand Funk Railroad. Thirty eight years ago, most of you weren’t born yet. For all intents and purposes, 38 years is a lifetime ago.
 I raise the question to highlight how long this man had waited, helpless, at the pool of Bethesda. St. John mentions that the pool had five porticoes. From time to time an angel would come down and stir up the water; the one to enter the water first would be healed.
Perhaps we can see here a veiled reference to the Law of Moses. It was made up of five books; it was ministered by angels…but it lacked the power to bring about change. The problem wasn’t the Law; the problem was, as St. Paul says elsewhere, that through fear of death we were subject to lifelong bondage. So close, and yet so far away.
The paralytic wanted to be healed. Why else would he stay there for thirty eight years? But, as he told the Lord, “I have no man to help me.” Wanting to be healed wasn’t enough. “I have no man to help me.” He spoke those words to the one and only man who could help him—the God-man, Jesus Christ. With one word from Christ, thirty-eight years of waiting come to a sudden end. “Get up,” the Lord says, “take up your bed and walk.” And at once the man got up.
Beloved, this paralyzed man has much to teach us—first, that self-help strategies count for nothing, unless we are connected to Christ. If we could change those things that trouble us by ourselves, wouldn’t we have done it by now? And yet we think, “Why trouble God with this problem? I should try to fix it myself. If I could just find the right self-help book…” Listen to the paralytic—he gets it right. I have no man to help me. There can be no healing, no forgiveness, no change in my life apart from Jesus Christ.
Second, he reminds us about patience. How many of us give up on prayer for some great need because our prayers are not answered at once? How many of us consign ourselves to hopelessness because our weak wills aren’t able to bring about change in our lives? God is faithful to his promises. Ask, and you will receive. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you.
And let us reflect on the pool of Bethesda—literally, “the house of mercy.” Like so much in the Old Testament times, it was a foreshadowing of something greater to come. This healing water, touched by angels, points forward to the greater and better water of Holy Baptism. Bethesda healed bodies; baptism cleanses souls. Bethesda healed one only, and from time to time; baptism washes each and every one who comes, no matter when they come.
When, then, we struggle with our own paralysis, let us return to our baptism. For there we were joined to the God-man, Jesus Christ. We were buried together with him by baptism into death, so that as he rose from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. Let us not grow faint because the struggle is long; but let us read and ponder God’s promises and cling to Christ in prayer.
And finally, as Christ gives us healing let us guard ourselves from falling back to where we came from. When Christ meets the man in the Temple he tells him, “Look, you are made well. Sin no more, lest something worse befall you.” Don’t read this as a threat—it isn’t. Christ doesn’t say, “Sin no more, lest I get angry with you.” He says, “lest something worse befall you.” Christ does not heal us so that we may seek our own will; he heals us so that we might seek his will.
 So if the struggle is long—keep at it! Wait on the Lord in prayer. Seek his face. He isn’t ashamed to help paralytics, and tax collectors, and prostitutes. The only folks he has no time for, are those who have no use for him. Return to your baptism, and trust that he who joined you, there, to Christ, will continue to work in your life until he brings you at last to his Kingdom, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

18 April 2012

Epictetus on not fearing want

Does God so neglect his own creatures, his servants, his witnesses, whom alone he uses as examples to the uninstructed, to prove that he both is, and governs the universe well, and does not neglect the affairs of men, and that no evil befalls a good man either in life or in death?

Yes; but what if he does not provide food?

Why, what else but that as a good general he has sounded the recall? I obey, I follow, lauding my commander, and singing hymns of praise about his deeds. For I came into the world when it so pleased him, and I leave it again at his pleasure, and while I live this was my function--to sing hymns of praise unto God, to myself and to others, be it to one or to many.

01 April 2012

Homily for Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” That’s the question Christ posed to James and John, all eager to sit next to him in his glory. They answered yes, but they didn’t know what they were saying. James would be martyred just a few years after the resurrection. John would be sent into exile and suffer many things before he reposed.

You see, to be worthy of sharing in Christ’s glory, we must first share in his suffering. There’s really no other way. No suffering, no glory. The New Testament makes it plain, again and again. In our text, Christ speaks of suffering in terms of sharing his baptism and his cup. When we receive the holy mysteries, we are embracing everything about Christ—especially his sufferings. As St. Paul says in Romans, “we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
Sometimes that suffering comes unsought. James didn’t try to get martyred; John didn’t seek to be exiled. They were faithful to Christ, and that’s enough to get into trouble.

Other times we embrace suffering for Christ’s sake. That’s what we’ve been doing this Lententide—learning to say “no” to ourselves in matters of prayer, alms and fasting. “No” isn’t a bad word, it’s a good word, it’s a life-changing, life-saving word. But “no” is never an easy word.

So how’s it going for you, this Lententide? Are you winning victories against the devil, the world, and your sinful flesh? Or are you feeling beaten down, discouraged and downright cranky? “Are you able to drink Christ’s cup, and receive his baptism?” For me, it’s been a real struggle.

That’s why our holy fathers were so wise to place the story of St. Mary of Egypt right at this point in our Lenten journey. She lived a loose life, selling herself not just for food, but for pleasure. When she tried to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and wasn’t able to, she was convicted of her sin. She came to repentance, and faith, and so was able to enter and receive the Holy Mysteries. Then, fortified by that food, she journeyed into the desert to fight against her passions for forty eight years.

We sometimes act like St. Mary and the other saints were different from us…that they were able to drink Christ’s cup, and receive his baptism. But St. Mary herself confessed to Fr. Zosima that for seventeen years she fought against the old passions and desires. And she wasn’t able, in herself, to win.

She herself told Fr. Zosima, “But when such desires entered me I struck myself on the breast and reminded myself of the vow which I had made, when going into the desert. In my thoughts I returned to the ikon of the Mother of God which had received me and to her I cried in prayer. I implored her to chase away the thoughts to which my miserable soul was succumbing. And after weeping for long and beating my breast I used to see light at last which seemed to shine on me from everywhere. And after the violent storm, lasting calm descended.”

Are you able? Am I? In a word, no! But neither were the saints. They learned from experience to call on God and his Mother in their weakness…and by the intercession of the Theotokos, God answered their prayers. He joined their sufferings with Christ’s sufferings. And through those sufferings—Christ’s sufferings, in which they joined—they entered his glory.

We must stop thinking of ourselves as separate from Christ. When we cut ourselves off from him, we wither and fail. But the whole point of everything in church is that we are joined with him. We were buried with him through baptism into death; he gives us to share his own body and blood, and so becomes one flesh with us. We are joined to Christ. Only in this way, beloved, will we ever be able to drink his cup, or share his baptism.

So don’t be discouraged. Take our mother Mary of Egypt as an image of repentance. Receive Christ as he comes to you in the mysteries. And he will give you grace to drink his cup, and share his baptism, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

26 February 2012

Homily for Cheesefare 2012

We are damned by ourselves; we are saved in community. We need to keep that in mind as we begin this Lententide. In last night’s Vespers we heard Adam sitting outside Paradise, mourning his Fall. The Fall brought death—separation—in Adam’s relationship to the world, to his wife, and to God. You may remember that when God confronted Adam, Adam blamed Eve. And Eve blamed the serpent. It was everyone for himself.

Still today we reap the fruit of that bitter harvest. St. Paul speaks of reveling and drunkenness, of debauchery and licentiousness, of quarreling and jealousy. Just consider drunkenness. Many folks get drunk for one of two reasons: either they want to overcome their own insecurity to make it easier to relate to others…or they want to forget the pain and brokenness of relationships that went bad. Either way, they end up lonelier and more isolated than ever.

That death, that separation, can even be seen in the church. Again, St. Paul speaks of the stronger and weaker brother. One man eats all kinds of food; another eats only vegetables. (By the way—did you notice that Paul says it’s the weaker man who eats only vegetables? We need to remember, as we enter the Fast, that fasting is a confession of our weakness, not something to boast about.) Even in the church, differences can lead to separation…alienation…death in our relationships.

In his mercy, Christ God gives us the weapons we take up during Lent to make us stronger, and to enliven our life together. “When you fast,” he says, because fasting turns me away from concern for my own life. “When you give alms,” he says, because giving alms makes me think of the other person, the one who lacks the things he needs. Remember Christ says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon?” We use money to make friends, when we give it away.

And then, “When you pray.” Prayer restores our link to God. In the words of last night’s vespers, “I shall return to the earth from which I was taken, and I shall cry to Thee, O compassionate One, have mercy upon me who am fallen.”

Our prayer, our alms and our fasting don’t heal the breach between man and God. No; that was done when God the Son took on flesh from the most pure Virgin, and embraced our fallen condition. He fasted to overcome Satan; he prayed for fallen Adam and his seed; he gave the best he had, his own life, into death so that by his death we might have life. He rose victorious in the strife, to prove that the ancient breach was healed.

So why then do we take up the weapons of prayer, and fasting, and giving alms during Lent? It’s because like Zacchaeus, we would get a clearer view of Christ…like the Prodigal Son, we want to return home…because, while we live in the light, we want to do those things which Christ will praise on his return in glory.

We are damned by ourselves; we are saved in community. In a few moments we
will mark Forgiveness Vespers. Each of us will ask forgiveness from everyone else, for the ways we have hurt each other this past year…for the ways we have chosen our own concerns over the life of the community. We will pray the prayer of St. Ephrem, which says in part, “Grant me to see my own sins, and not to judge my brother.”

And we will offer more services during Lent. It isn’t easy to come more often to church, I know. It means giving up some of my own pursuits. It means making tough choices. But the Lenten fast is too hard to do on your own. We need each other, to encourage and support each other. We are damned by ourselves. We are saved in community.

So come, brothers and sisters; let us greet the Lenten fast with joy. Let us forgive one another; let us love one another; let us encourage each other as we make ready to celebrate Christ’s holy resurrection. For by his obedience he has conquered our sin; by his death he has conquered our death; and by his rising he has restored us to the image of that ancient beauty in which we once were fashioned.

22 February 2012

Homily on the Last Judgment

Space and time are so tied to our life that we rarely give them a thought. Indeed, our every thought presupposes them both. We are, all of us, artists. Space is the canvas we paint on, and time is the brush we use.

Sometimes we think about things we might paint on that canvas; it’s then we use the word “if.” If I eat less, and exercise more, I will lose weight. If I study, I will get better grades. “If” is a wonderful word. It lets us consider possibilities—what might be.

But other times, we think about things that most definitely will be painted on that canvas. At those times, we use the word “when.” I remember sitting beside Cindy on her parents’ couch. I had proposed to her three times, and each time she said, “Don’t ask yet.” But as we sat there, I heard her say, “When I’m your wife…”—and to be honest with you, I can’t remember what came after those words. I only remember stopping her, looking at her and saying, “When? I accept your proposal!” And here we are, nearly 34 years later.

Today’s Gospel begins with the little word “When.” “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all his angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.” Today we remember that Christ’s return in judgment is not a possibility. It’s a certainty. It’s not an “if,” but a “when.”

And his words make us think about what we’ve been painting on the canvas we’ve been given. To those who have sought him and seen him in the least of his brothers, he speaks words of greatest joy: “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. I was hungry, and you fed me; thirsty and you gave me drink…”

But to those who haven’t sought him or seen him in the least of his brothers, his words speak terror: “Depart from me, O accursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you didn’t feed me; thirsty and you didn’t give me a drink…”

For me, most of the paint on my life’s canvas is already put down, already dry, already set. And when I think about it soberly, there is much to inspire me with fear. I have not sought the Savior in the least of his brothers. I have thought myself somehow better than others. I have excused my sin, and blamed others for theirs. I have served my own passions and desires. I have not wept at the thought of my sins. I have lived in exile from the Father, and fed myself on pigs’ food.

Dear friends, we are a year closer to the time that today’s text will be an overwhelming reality. The text does not start with “if,” but with “when.” When the Son of Man comes, he will judge; and come he most certainly will.

What, then, is our hope? Only this: that in his goodness and love for mankind, then “when” has not yet happened. We who hear his words still live in time and space. There is yet more color in our brush; our canvas is not yet full.

Here and now, he bids us think of his other “when"s, now fulfilled. The virgin conceived and bore a Son, God with us. God the Word became flesh and visited us. He has clothed us with his own righteousness. He has fed our hunger and quenched our thirst with the finest of fare—his own life-giving body and blood.

Because our God is good and loves mankind, the “when” of judgment has not yet happened. He gives us a precious gift—the people in our lives, this place where we live—on which to write. He gives us time—not much time, but only “today”—with which we may write the message of his mercy on that canvas.

It is still not over. It is not too late. With the prodigal from last week’s gospel we can still say, “I will arise and go to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; let me be your servant.”

We do not have forever, my brothers and sisters. But we do have today…today to meditate on his mercy…today to trust his goodness…today to show forth that goodness in the lives of all those he gives us to love.

29 January 2012

Homily on the Canaanite Woman

Which of us here wouldn’t welcome a deeper, more abiding faith? With all the problems in our broader world, and the troubles in our own hearts and lives, a strong and vibrant faith could help us cope with life’s twists and turns.
All of us want it. The question is, how do we get it? We need not buy lots of books. We don’t have to travel on distant pilgrimages. We don’t have to change our address, or our job, or even our parish.
No; for each and every one of us, the answer’s much closer to home. Take a look at the woman in today’s Gospel. She had a daughter, every mother’s dream…but her dream had become a nightmare. Her daughter was demon possessed.
When she heard that Jesus had come to her neighborhood, she went to ask his help. “Lord, have mercy; my daughter is demon possessed.” And how did he respond?
First he gave her silence. But she wouldn’t quit.
Then he told her he was sent only to Israel. But still she begged.
Finally he said, “It isn’t right to give the children’s bread to the dogs.”
She took him at his word and said, “Yes, Lord—yet even dogs get the crumbs.”

To us, it may seem as if the Lord is being cruel. We get so caught up in the coldness of his words, that we miss the warmth of his heart. And that’s because, I’m convinced, our experience of him is so different from hers.
We want to have deeper faith, but we don’t realize that the troubles, and problems, and sins we face in ourselves and in those we love are all the means God uses to strengthen our faith. We’re like a man who goes to the gym, and sees all the equipment, and says, “How will I ever get fit?”
Think about that problem you’ve been struggling with. Perhaps you told it to the priest in confession. Perhaps you’ve kept it bottled up inside. Then late at night, it all comes rushing in…a sinful habit you struggle to break…a relationship all in tatters… the loneliness of someone who’s single but doesn’t want to be…or the heartbreak of those who want to be parents, but can’t quite seem to conceive.
What’s the problem? What is it you carry around inside? Beloved, that’s the thing God means to strengthen your faith. For the woman, it was her daughter. For you—well, only you can say.
We must learn to tie the Gospel together with the pains and struggles we face—not only the little ones, but also the big ones, the ones we’ve gotten used to, the ones we think nothing can help.
“But I’ve tried to do that,” you say, “and it didn’t make a difference.”
When I taught at seminary, I met a most remarkable man. Cliff Lloyd was a Welshman who served in World War II. After the war, he helped in training troops. When he emigrated to Canada, he earned a PhD and was founding president of a university. But then he got a very bad stroke. It affected his speech and his mobility. He retired.
One day he phoned me. He was 76 year old, and wanted to get a theological degree. At first I tried to discourage him. But he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. The last time I saw Cliff—and he got his degree, by the way—he told me, “I have something for you.” Then he gave me a paper with a drawing on it. A large bird has just swallowed a frog. But the frog’s two arms are coming out of the bird’s mouth and grabbing the bird by the throat. Below the picture, the caption reads, “Never give up.”
Take a look this morning at your deepest hurts and heartaches—the things you just can’t wrap your mind around. Don’t just learn to live with them. See them for what they are—the parts and places of your life where God is working, calling you To call on him…
To exercise your faith…
To learn to persevere, like this Canaanite woman…
To say, with Jacob of old, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”
Our greatest problems are really our greatest opportunities, to learn with this woman to pursue God: to ask, and seek, and knock, and not be turned away until we have touched his very heart.
For his heart towards us is good, just as it was towards her. “Oh woman,” he said, “your faith is great. Let it be done as you ask.” And her daughter was healed instantly. The Lord is not cruel; how could he be? He died for us. The Lord is not apathetic; he came from heaven to seek and save us. The Lord is not powerless; he who made everything from nothing can give you what you need. He who raises the dead can surely bring new life to your heart and home. He who forgives sinners can cleanse you, and make you white as wool.
So keep on asking…keep on seeking…keep on knocking. He promises that everyone who asks, receives; everyone who seeks, finds; and to everyone who keeps knocking, the door will be opened. Let us try his words and prove that he is faithful!

22 January 2012

Homily on Zacchaeus

They say that curiosity killed the cat, but curiosity brought Zacchaeus life. He was curious about Christ, and when he heard that the Lord was coming to his town, he did a very cat-like thing: he climbed a tree.
Why the tree? For one thing, he was short. But that wasn’t all. For him to get in the midst of a crowd could be dangerous. After all, he wasn’t the favorite man in town. He was a chief tax collector, and he was very good at his work.
He must have thought things through, too—like a cat planning to catch its prey. Jericho was a big, busy city with lots of streets and lanes. Which street would Christ come down? Which tree on that street would be best to climb?
So there he was, perched in his tree like a cat. But when the Lord passed by, the game of cat-and-mouse was reversed. Christ stopped in his tracks, looked up, and caught Zacchaeus where he was…he caught him with love.
He called Zacchaeus by name. “Zaccchaeus,” he said, “come down. I must stay today at your house!” When we hear it, we might miss the word “must.” “I must stay today at your house.” It wasn’t an option. It was part of his plan, all along.
Quickly Zacchaeus scooted down the tree. He didn’t worry what others thought. He didn’t think about what other plans he might have had for the day. He was completely captured by Christ’s love.
The crowd complained…they always do, don’t they? So Zacchaeus said to Christ, “Look, Lord! I give half my goods to the poor; and if I’ve taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore it four-fold!” Think what this meant: Zacchaeus was sold out for Christ. He was choosing to go from riches to rags. He was choosing poverty; or rather, he was making friends by means of mammon.
Today, in the midst of winter, the smell of Spring is in the air—the Lenten Spring, that is…the light of repentance. It’s only a few short weeks till we begin our journey to Christ’s cross and tomb—and then, the joy of Pascha.
For on that day when Christ called Zacchaeus down from the tree, he was very near the time when his journey took him to another tree—the cross. There he hung between heaven and earth as the noblest fruit. By being raised on that tree, he overcame the fall that resulted from another tree. He put death to death by death, and brought our life to light.
Today the Lord Jesus passes by again. He calls us by name. He bids us come down from the trees we’ve put ourselves in…to come to him for salvation—healing and wholeness.
So let us loose our grip on the things that hold us back: our pleasures and possessions, our sin and selfishness. Let us, like Zacchaeus, find our pleasure in giving away possessions. Let us who receive Christ’s very life in the Eucharist, learn to share that life. He who gave himself into death for us, will provide the things we need to live with him, and bring us at last to his heavenly Kingdom, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

21 January 2012

A homily by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich

About God's omniscience and providence

"Even all the hairs of your headare counted" (St. Matthew 10:30).

Brethren, "the hairs of your head are counted" much less the days of your life! Do not be afraid, therefore, that you will die before your appointed time nor yet hope that you will somehow be able to extend your life for one day against the will of Him Who counts and measures. Let this knowledge teach you meekness and fear of God.

"The hairs of your head are counted" much less your sufferings on earth! Do not be afraid, therefore, that you will suffer more beyond measure. Fear even less that your sufferings will remain forgotten and unaccounted for by Him Who sees all. This knowledge will teach you patience and confidence toward your Creator and Provider.

"The hairs of your head are counted" much less your friends and enemies on earth! Do not be afraid, therefore, that you will have either too many friends or too many enemies. Neither be afraid that your enemies will overcome you nor be assured that your friends will defend you. Concern yourself only that you have God for a friend and do not be afraid of anything. Behold, He is your only friend Who loves you without change.

O Good Lord, Wise Provider Who knows the number, measure and time of all, banish from us every fear, except the fear of You. That through fear of You, we may arrive to the pure and holy love toward You, our Creator and Benefactor.

To You be glory and thanks always. Amen.

01 January 2012

An insight from MacIntyre

"...the adherents of a tradition which is now in this state of fundamental and radical crisis [in context, a 'a state of epistemological crisis'] may at this point encounter in a new way the claims of some particular rival tradition, perhaps one with which they have for some time coexisted, perhaps one which they are now encountering for the first time. They now come or had already come to understand the beliefs and way of life of this other alien tradition, and to do so they have or have had to learn...the language of the alien tradition as a new and second first language.

When they have understood the beliefs of the alien tradition, they may find themselves compelled to recognize that within this other tradition it is possible to construct from the concepts and theories peculiar to it what they were unable to provide from their own conceptual and theoretical resources, a cogent and illuminating explanation--cogent and illuminating, that is, by their own standards--of why their own intellectual tradition had been unable to solve its problems or restore its coherence...

In this kind of situation the rationality of tradition requires an acknowledgement by those who have hitherto inhabited and given their allegiance to the tradition in crisis that the alien tradition is superior in rationality and in respect of its claims to truth to their own."

Alasdair MacIntyre, "Whose Justice? Which Rationality?" pp. 364f

MacIntyre succinctly captures my journey from Lutheranism to the Orthodox Church.

From a hot summer day in 1984 when layfolk participated in an ordination, to the 2004 convention of the LCMS when, for the first time, the non-ecclesial nature of the Synod was clearly visible to me...from the Good Friday afternoon in 1987 to the afternoon of July 23, 2005 when I was chrismated--I gradually came to see that things in Lutheranism which initially annoyed were, rather, signs of systemic brokenness and decay; and that things in the Church which initially struck me as fragments of truth and beauty were, in fact, part of a consistent and complete whole which could no longer be denied.

All this I write, not to offend Lutheran friends, but to serve as a monument for my own memory.